Part 11 of Food in Literature brings together three extracts from Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens.
Martin Chuzzlewit is one of my favourite Dickens novels. I love the egregious and irrepressible hypocrisy of Mr Pecksniff. A while ago I contributed one extract from Martin Chuzzlewit about the estimable Mrs Todgers and her struggles with gravy. Here also is the episode of Mrs Gamp’s Supper
Mrs Todgers on gravy
Like Mr Pecksniff, the Walrus in Alice Through the Looking Glass is one of my favourite characters . You’ll remember how he persuades the poor, innocent little oysters into taking a pleasant walk along the beach, only to produce a loaf of bread and proceed to eat them every one. (this scene is one of the joys of the wonderful Disney film. Walt Disney and Lewis Carroll were a perfect match) As he demolishes the oysters the walrus professes deep sympathy for their plight.
“I weep for you” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathise”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size.'
Holding his pocket handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes."
Martin Chuzzlewhit also contains one of my food heroines. Mrs Todgers runs a boarding house for commercial gentlemen, is hopelessly in love with Mr Pecksniff and wages daily herculean battles in order to satisfy her lodgers' unquenchable thirst for gravy.
“presiding over an establishment like this makes sad havoc with the features, My dear Miss Pecksniffs” said Mrs Todgers. “The gravy alone is enough to add twenty years to one’s age, I do assure you.”
“Lor!” cried the two Miss Pecksniffs.
“The anxiety of that one item my dears” said Mrs Todgers “keeps the mind continually upon the stretch. There is no such passion in Human nature, as the passion for gravy among commercial gentlemen. Its nothing to say a joint won’t yield – a whole animal wouldn’t yield – the amount of gravy they expect each day at dinner. And what I have undergone in consequence,” cried Mrs Todgers, raising her eyes and shaking her head, “no one would believe.”
Mrs Gamp’s supper
If you’ve been confined to bed recently, you may have longed for the care and skilful attentions of an old fashioned private nurse. The most outstanding example of this profession is the superb Mrs Gamp.
Mrs Gamp is extremely particular about her food. Here she is, giving instructions, prior to sitting down to watch over a sick patient.
“I think, young woman”, said Mrs Gamp to the assistant chambermaid, in a tone expressive of weakness," that I could pick a little bit of pickled salmon, with a nice little sprig of fennel, and I sprinkling of white pepper. I take new bread, my dear, with just a little pat of fresh butter, and a mossel of cheese. In case there should be such a thing as a cowcumber in the house, will you be so kind as to bring it, for I’m rather partial to ‘em and they does a world of good in a sick room. If they draws the Brighton Old Tipper here, I takes that ale at night, my love; it bein’ considered wakeful by the doctors. And whatever you do, young woman, don’t bring more than a shillin’s worth of gin and water – warm when I rings the bell a second time; for that is always my allowance, and I never take a drop beyond!"
Having preferred these moderate requests. Mrs Gamp observed that she would stand by the door until the order was executed, to the end that the patient might not be disturbed by her opening it a second time; and therefore she would thank the young woman to “look sharp”
A tray was brought with everything upon it, even to the cucumber; Mrs Gamp accordingly sat down to eat and drink in high good humour. The extent to which she availed herself of the vinegar, and supped up that refreshing fluid with the blade of her knife, can hardly be expressed in narrative.
" Ah!" sighed Mrs Gamp, as she meditated over the warm shilling’s worth, “What a blessed thing it is – living in a wale- to be contented!” What a blessed thing it is to make sick people happy in their beds, and never mind one’s self as long as one can do a service! I don’t believe a finer cowcumber was ever grow’d. I’m sure I never seen one!"
She moralised in the same way until her glass was empty and then administered the patient’s medicine, by the simple expedient of clutching his windpipe and making him gasp, and immediately pouring it down his throat.
Tom Pinch and his sister set up house together
Tom Pinch is Mr Pecksniff’s much put upon, long standing pupil. When he finally discovers that his idol, the man he has revered and passionately defended against his detractors is nothing but a venal, greedy fraud, he breaks away and goes to London. He liberates his sister Ruth from enslavement as a governess with a beastly family and they set up home together. They are terribly hard up but they manage to find a flat and are thrilled to be reunited. Dickens is at his weakest when he waxes sentimental over pretty young women but this description of Ruth Pecksniff’s first attempt to make a beef pudding is delightful.
Ruth asks her brother what he would like for dinner, and faltered out “chops” as a reasonably good suggestion after their last night’s successful supper. Tom grew quite facetious and rallied her desperately.
“I don’t know Tom”, said his sister, blushing." I am not quite confident but I think I could make a beef steak pudding, if I tried, Tom."
" In the whole catalogue of cookery, there is nothing I should like so much as a beef steak pudding!" cried Tom, slapping his leg to give the greater force to his reply.
“Yes, dear, that’s excellent. But if it should happen not to come quite right the first time,” his sister faltered: “if it should happen not to be a pudding exactly, but should turn out a stew, or a soup, or something of that sort, you’ll not be vexed Tom, will you?”
The serious way in which she looked at Tom; the way in which Tom looked at her; and the way in which she gradually broke into a merry laugh at her own expense; would have enchanted you.
“Why” said Tom, “this is capital. It gives us a new and quite uncommon interest in the dinner. We put into a lottery for a beef steak pudding and it is impossible to say what we may get. We may make some marvellous discovery, perhaps, and produce such a dish as was never was known before.”
“I shall not be at all surprised if we do Tom,” replied his sister, still laughing merrily, “Or if is should prove to be such a dish as we shall not feel very anxious to produce again; but the meat must come out of the saucepan at last, somehow or other, you know. We can’t cook it into nothing at all; that’s a great comfort. So if you like to venture, I will.”
So off they go to buy the ingredients.
"To see the butcher slap the steak, before he laid it on the block, and give his knife a sharpening, was to forget breakfast instantly. It was agreeable too — and it really was — to see him cut it off so smooth and juicy. There was nothing savage in the act, although the knife was large and keen; it was a piece of art; high art; there was delicacy of touch, clearness of tone, skilful handling of the subject, fine shading. It was the triumph of mind over matter; quite.
Perhaps the greenest cabbage-leaf ever grown in a garden was wrapped about this steak, before it was delivered over to Tom. But the butcher had a sentiment for his business, and knew how to refine upon it. When he saw Tom putting the cabbage leaf into his pocket, awkwardly, he begged to be allowed to do it for him; “for meat,” he said, with some emotion,“must be humoured, not drove.”
Dickens' description of Ruth assembling the pudding does, I’m afraid, betray his uncomfortable fixation over young women but I shall leave out the more mawkish parts and here goes.
“It was a perfect treat for Tom to see her with her brows knit and her rosy lips pursed up, kneading away at the crust, rolling it out, cutting it up into strips, lining the basin with it, shaving it off fine round the rim, chopping up the steak into small pieces, raining down pepper and salt upon them, packing them into the basin, pouring in cold water for gravy, and never venturing to steal a look in his direction, lest her gravity should be disturbed; until, at last, the basin being quite full and only wanting the top crust, she clapped her hands all covered with paste and flour, at Tom, and burst out heartily into such a charming little laugh of triumph, that the pudding need have no other seasoning to commend it to the taste of any reasonable man on earth.”
They sit down to dinner, joined by Tom’s friend and erstwhile fellow pupil at Mr Pecksniff’s, John Westlake.
“The table was already spread for dinner; and though it was spread with nothing very choice in the way of glass or linen, and with green-handled knives, and very mountebanks of two-pronged forks, which seemed to be trying how far asunder they could possibly stretch their legs without converting themselves into double the number of iron toothpicks, it wanted neither damask, silver, gold, nor china; no, nor any other garniture at all. There it was; and, being there, nothing else would have done as well.”
The pudding is, of course a huge success.